I’m hunched down under a little umbrella, my back against a rock face on the mountainside, and through drumming hail sunlight beams from under a turreted and tendrilled bank of Atlantic cloud.
Cold. Fresh. Soft. The loft-frozen pellets hop and bounce down the rock face. Pile into little lines and bumps and begin to whiten the ruddy earth. Bounce and hop but then suddenly seem to turn weightless, replaced by scattering petals of snow. Colder still. And then traditional rain joins in, heavy and steady and wet and I crouch deeper under the little flapping shelter.
Fickle winter weather, and a churning mess of cloudmass from the west in slow waves. I came up from the church car park, up the steep pitch of narrow road to the old graveyard. There the exposed hillside tombstones rest on a much older formation, old enough to be the area’s namesake. This is Cashel, from the Gaeilge An Caiseal, a name for a ringfort. These would have been built in the bronze age, which goes back some 3000 years. But this ringfort now sits under the high Cashel graveyard. Clumps of unmarked stumps mingle with rectangular marble and granite slabs and plastic flowers and crosses and bordered beds of gravel.
I notice a tall narrow headstone with a different style
PVT 103 Infantry
World War I
May 9 1894
January 26 1970
A full run of 20th Century carnage: in a weathered Connemara hillside graveyard built in a weathered 3000 year old fort, lies a Nee who fought in the American army, probably on some blood and mud dug trench in France in the Great war, during which Ireland itself kicked off an uprising against British rule.
3000 years of cloudchurn and yet so quiet and unperturbed. A herd of small sheep with red and blue markings line up behind a gate watching me in hope of feed. An abandoned big house half submerged in a copse of leafless trees. A line of electricity poles lead from its gable back down the hill, the wires long gone: must have been in use after electricity arrived here in the 1950s. Here is a land with abandonment sewn into its definition. More goings than comings. As basic as the acidic soil where the roots of civilising crops are loathe to tunnel. Leave it to the mosses and grasses and layers of sodden peat. Here lies ties to centuries of roaming and fighting and big thick lines being drawn and redrawn on history maps. And yet just a flock of sheep chewing and staring at a gate under Cashel hill.
Higher up, I think about turning back, but the sun pops out again, and I clamber to the summit. It’s not high, just a little over 300m, but is unobscured and panoramic. Straight east huddle the basket of Bens and south of them over the Inagh valley and Recess, the broad Maamturks, and then beyond that Maam, Derroura, Oughterard, and the Corrib. Lakes pocket the bog. Dense conifer plantations in dark green patches. The higher peaks are dusted white, and over them all a canopy of shifting clouds spilling hail, rain, snow. You can make out distant blades of Cloosh wind mills spinning a little more west, and as you spin further that way, the flatter fragmented bogs and scattered houses of gaelic south connemara, from Carna down to Lettermore, Gorumna, and Carraroe and then on towards Galway, hidden now by cloud or slope or both.
Still turning, now facing into the sun as it approaches the Atlantic lid somewhere over the Aran Islands. Just below, the sea negotiates a series of complex bays and inlets. There’s something Escher-like about the one and the other. Perhaps the bog is the bay and the bay the bog? The ocean is boundary, limit, barrier, but yet passage, potential, murky and laden. Further north, the other lonely sisterpeak of Errisbeg over Roundstone, and past that the clouds sitting thicker and opaque. Another band rolling in.
The wind is howling again and flecks of new hail begin to patter, even while light still pours. There’s no scrap of shelter here, so I don’t wait beyond trying to stick something of the place into a digital sensor. Snappity snap. Then I flee back down towards the sheltered slopes and crouch under another rock face when the soup gets thick. The umbrella buckles. A dial cover is missing from the camera. Losses. I track back down by the graveyard and its layers of stones and story and down the hill to the car across from the church. Its wipers have been acting up, but they twitch into life now first time, and I pull out onto the road for home.
Why climb a hill at all? There might be a point. There might not. Is it not all self serving in the end, and the self not a thing at all?
“We’ll climb that hill, no matter how high, when we get up to it.”
8 thoughts on “Cashel Hill: Finding Connemara”
Really beautiful written we are the family from the old house on the hill my grandparents were the last to reside there we have a life time of memories and good times on Cashel hill my family are buried there and it is lovely to think someone else can see the haunting beauty of this very special place
Only seeing this comment now, as 99% of the ones I get are spam! Thanks for the kind message; it is a lovely spot, and a great place to have memories of and roots in. The hill has such a unique shape and location, and the views are incredible. I will hopefully return soon on a day with interesting weather 🙂
Amazing that I came across this, my grandfather was Coleman Née and I was searching for information and the photo came up. My brother and I and numerous cousins were there this past July to bring some of my mothers ashes home to Cashel. Twenty four of us made the climb up the hill, a memory that will be cherished forever.
Wow, that is amazing- I found the headstone so unusual and unexpected, an enigmatic detail telling of the topsy turvy currents of history. To have your family history resonate again years later on the same wild hill is really something! Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.
26 cousins relatives, cousins, children and spouse’s from 5 different countries ventured up to the cemetery on Cashel Hill the first days of July 2018 to scatter the ashes of my mom, Nora Nee King, daughter of Coleman Nee who you mention in your wonderful article. Thank you
Thanks very much for your kind comment: That’s two lovely messages from the same party who made that trip! It sounds like a special gathering; incredible how the history of a wild windswept boggy hill can connect out to so many. It’s great to know that the story did not end with Coleman’s and is now a global tale.
After seeing an aerial photo of this place on Instagram I sought more information and that led me here. What a beautiful essay and glorious photos. The connection to the Née family was touching.
Thanks very much, Jan, for taking the time to respond. It is nice to know that people still read websites, though I never noticed your kind comment until now!